Behavior support informed by Peace Literacy
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a systemic, evidence- based approach to addressing classroom behavior teachers find challenging. While PBIS gets implemented in a variety of ways, most approaches share two main conceptual improvements over more traditional responses to challenging behavior:
PBIS focuses on rewarding positive behaviors, rather than (or in addition to) simply punishing challenging behaviors.
PBIS recognizes that classrooms and schools are systems with a variety of stakeholders who interact to produce challenging behaviors, and who need to collectively take responsibility for building supports that reduce those behaviors.
Teachers, administrators, and support staff all have roles to play, and they all need to be on the same page. When these conceptual changes are implemented consistently, with buy-in from all the relevant stakeholders, PBIS has been associated with a reduction in challenging behaviors, and in the kinds of punishments that traditionally accompany them. These results have encouraged many departments of education across the US to require the implementation of PBIS.
However, PBIS approaches, for all their documented successes, have a number of similarly well-documented weaknesses. For public schools aligned with Montessori, the weaknesses are especially salient. Here, we offer a brief account of some problems with PBIS generally, and from a Montessori perspective in particular. We also outline foundational principles of a modified behavioral support model that has similar well-documented positive outcomes, while avoiding the weaknesses. The model is based on the insights provided by:
Paul K. Chappell’s Peace Literacy paradigm for trauma-informed education
Ross Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model
Zaretta Hammond’s work on Culturally Responsive Teaching
the Nautilus Approach designed by Public Montessori in Action
Just as Montessori’s insights into the development of children offer important correctives to traditional educational models—insights that we believe should be made more widely available—this model offers important correctives to PBIS that should also be widely adopted.
Weaknesses of PBIS, especially for Montessori
While PBIS focuses on rewards rather than punishments, it still keeps a focus exclusively on behavior and its management. But extensive evidence makes clear that “behaviors” are merely observable symptoms of deeper issues, often including trauma. Attempts to modify behavior without understanding the underlying problem will only take us so far, and for many children that is not far enough.
In addition, positive consequences or rewards for behavior build extrinsic motivation at the expense of helping children develop intrinsic motivation. Montessori made clear that the intrinsic motivation is key. Any documented gains from the PBIS focus on extrinsic motivations are thus likely to be short-lived and restricted to very particular contexts.
PBIS typically views behavioral change as a pre-requisite to successful academic study, rather than an integral part of academics. Research into social-emotional learning informed by Peace Literacy reinforces and extends Montessori’s insights that social and behavioral development is the child’s primary work and needs to be trained, modeled, and practiced as a literacy in its own right, as an academic subject of elementary and middle school (and higher grades to the extent possible), and around which other academic subjects can be organized.
The systemic support offered by most PBIS approaches does not center the perspective of the child, if indeed the child’s view is included at all. Montessori has shown us why a focus on the child is so critical, and why its absence is a problem. Too often PBIS approaches inscribe unidirectional power over children by teachers, rather than collaboratively building relations of power with children, teachers, and caregivers, In other words, PBIS approaches too often “reinstate order” at the expense of “establishing justice.”
In societies like the US structured inequitably around race, the focus on “order” becomes particularly problematic. Educators tend to have absorbed implicit biases about “order,” who needs it, and what counts as violating it, which disproportionately penalize young Black children, especially Black boys. By focusing on behavior rather than the cultural and community contexts within which some children’s behaviors become salient and others not, PBIS approaches can exacerbate existing social inequities. The focus on behavior was meant to make PBIS more objective, but ironically, by stripping behavioral analysis of its cultural and community context, PBIS can contribute to racial and other inequities.
Finally, the tripartite structure of most PBIS frameworks has the emphasis on interventions and supports precisely backwards. Built on a base of so-called “universal interventions and supports” deemed sufficient for the behavioral growth of most children, and moving up in a pyramid fashion to the secondary or targeted interventions and supports seen as necessary for growth in a smaller group of children, most PBIS systems reserve tertiary and intensive interventions and supports for a minority of children who present particularly challenging behaviors.
The modified approach we prescribe recognizes first that the children behaving in particularly challenging ways are no longer a small minority in any given classroom and that, regardless of their number, the behaviors they exhibit indicate a larger problem in our society which deserves universal attention. Just as disability rights activists have argued successfully that accommodations for people with disabilities ultimately help everyone (“universal design”), so too, attention to the problems these “tertiary” children struggle with can provide insights valuable to everyone in the school setting, including educators, administrators, caregivers, and community members. These behaviors are symptomatic of a broader ecological problem in our schools, communities, and families. Students who do not exhibit these behaviors are not necessarily healthy and thriving; often they have merely found ways to adapt to this problematic ecology. Rather than rewarding their adaptation to a maladaptive ecology, we want to educate children to help change the ecology.
A Montessori model informed by Peace Literacy
The modified approach we endorse conforms to typical state requirements for PBIS and builds on the insights of Montessori to which we are all committed. It is based on Paul K. Chappell’s new paradigm for trauma-informed education: Peace Literacy. Increasing peace literacy for all members of our learning communities requires us to work on three elements:
increasing the accuracy of our understanding about the world and our place in it
learning and practicing new skills
A Montessori school guided by the needs of the developing child and dedicated to building a culture of peace and justice, requires all of us–children and adults alike–to develop our Peace Literacy by recognizing and supporting the following foundational principles:
We all have non-physical needs, such as needs for belonging, purpose and meaning, nurturing relationships, and transcendence. Developing peace literacy involves understanding these non-physical needs and taking them seriously as drivers of human behavior. These needs are so strong that if we can’t meet them in healthful ways, we’ll meet them in unhealthful ways. To help children meet these needs in healthful ways, adults must prepare an environment where children can work uninterrupted, transcending their sense of time, in a community of healthy belonging, with minimal but nurturing supervision, on tasks that provide them with purpose and meaning. The Nautilus Approach (montessori-action.org) provides a roadmap for helping children with their work, and helping them return to that work when it is interrupted. When we adults prepare this kind of environment for children, it helps us meet our needs as well.
We all want to do well if we can. Humans generally, and children in particular, typically want to help others and to live up to positive expectations others set for them. When we find that we, or our colleagues, or the children in our care, aren’t doing well, aren’t performing to expectations, it is common to make judgments of laziness, unwillingness to learn, or attention- seeking.
However, these judgments are based on explanations that are inaccurate because they focus only on symptoms. And, this focus on symptoms contributes to inequities in the classroom, especially for children of color. According to Ross Greene, when we aren’t doing well, a more accurate and equitable explanation gets to the root: there is a gap in our understanding, skills, and/or capacities, that makes us unable to meet a challenge we’ve experienced in the learning environment.
We can all feel the “fires of distress” when we encounter a gap in our understanding, skills, and/or capacities. These fires can look like frustration, shame, or fear, and children and adults alike sometimes respond to the fires of distress with the heat of aggression. Conflicts and challenges are inevitable in any learning community, but aggressive responses are not. To effectively mitigate the heat of aggression, we need to understand and attend to the fire of distress at the root of the aggressive behavior by deploying our skills in listening and cultivating calm, and by flexing our capacities for empathy, imagination, and conscience.
We can all help each other if we encounter a gap, experience distress, and respond with aggression. What challenge in the learning environment is at the root of the distress? Have we understood our non-physical needs? Do we have the skills to meet those needs in a healthful way? Have we built the capacities needed for exercising those skills? Greene’s Collaborative Proactive Solutions model suggests a way forward. When we work collaboratively with the children in our care, to identify the challenge in the environment that is causing the distress, when we get help understanding the relevant needs, learning the skills, and building the capacities, then we can close the gap, lower the distress, and mitigate the aggression. Zaretta Hammond emphasizes that these kinds of collaborations ought not to characterize the gaps as deficits, but as problems to solve, and that each child brings unique strengths and solutions from which we can all learn.
We can all help each other increase our understanding, learn skills, and build our capacities— to develop our literacy in peace. In addition to traditional academic subjects, we can build on social emotional learning outcomes to include:
Understanding our nonphysical needs and how to meet those needs in healthful ways
Learning the skills of recognizing when we are in distress (and when trauma is the cause of that distress) and for empathizing with that distress rather than responding with aggression
Building our capacity for empathy, conscience, and hope
These learning outcomes are designed to prepare children to be engaged citizens working for peace and justice. Helping children develop their Peace Literacy is a key academic subject for primary education. Peace Literacy is their work. It is our work.
Photos courtesy of Tremont Montessori School